David Gordon has introduced a new weekly series at the Mises site, called Friday Philosophy. Every week it is a real treat. His recent post, entitled Murray Rothbard and Thomas Kuhn, contained interesting observations. The post focusses on Rothbard’s look at Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962):
Though people differ about what Kuhn meant, many take him to deny that science gives access to the real world. Truth is relative to a “paradigm,” another much disputed word.
Gordon would comment that while Rothbard rejects Kuhn’s philosophy, he accepts much of what Kuhn says about the history of science. So, what does Kuhn say? Citing Rothbard:
The continual progress, onward-and-upward approach was demolished for me, and should have been for everyone, by Thomas Kuhn’s famed Structure of Scientific Revolutions. …Kuhn demolished what I like to call the “Whig theory of the history of science”.
By “Whig theory,” Rothbard means the idea that “science marches onward and upward, each year, decade or generation learning more and possessing ever more correct scientific theories.” Kuhn has taken this notion to task. Rothbard notes that Kuhn’s idea is perfectly applicable to the Whig theory of history, that things are supposedly always getting better.
At any point in time, we are closer to whatever is right, or true, than at any point in the past. The liberal west certainly embraced this notion with the Enlightenment, and the deplorables are regularly told to get on the right side of history any time we question one iota of the progressivist agenda.
While Kuhn is writing of scientific progress, Rothbard applied Kuhn’s concept to economic thought – noting the faulty belief held by many who assume this ever-advancing notion of progress toward the true:
There can, then, be no such thing as gross systemic error that deeply flawed, or even invalidated, an entire school of economic thought, much less sent the world of economics permanently astray.
Kuhn would observe that once a paradigm has been accepted, it remains accepted until the unavoidable crisis forces its adherents out of their worshipful stupor. No matter the evidence against it in the meantime, nothing will sway this institutional acceptance.
We see this all around us. It certainly exists in economics and central banking. Despite the obvious flaws (to put it mildly), the only answer that mainstream economics can allow is more of the same, at exponentially-increasing rates. We see it in science, with climate change, the corona, and vaccinations.
We see it in the sweep of history, with every empire’s rise until its inevitable fall – never changing course until a course-change was violently forced upon it (with the one notable exception, perhaps, of the Soviet Union, which went down rather quietly).
Rothbard separates his appreciation of Kuhn’s comments regarding progress from Kuhn’s overall philosophical views:
One need not adopt Kuhn’s nihilistic philosophic outlook, his implication that no one paradigm is or can be better than any other, to realize that his less than starry-eyed view of science rings true both as history and as sociology.
It is a tremendously meaningful point, and it is the point that prompted my thoughts here. Just because we run into institutionally-defended “truths” regardless of the facts, does not mean that there is no such thing as “truth.”
Rothbard takes Kuhn’s observations regarding hard science, and applies it to what we now consider the softer sciences – to include economics. Rothbard offers the example of Greek Fire, a seventh century technology – a type of a flamethrower – that remains baffling to modern scientists. He also adds to this the varnish of a Stradivarius violin, “which nobody can duplicate.”
We know less about certain areas of optics than they did in the 18th century. At any rate, when we get to the social sciences and philosophy, this is much more true.
David Gordon would neatly tie together what some might see as a conflict in Rothbard’s thought, making clear that Rothbard’s views were logically consistent. Acceptance of Kuhn’s take-down of the Whig history of scientific thought does not require acceptance of Kuhn’s relativist philosophy:
...doesn’t this make truth in science relative after all? But this doesn’t follow. Truth and universal agreement aren’t the same thing.
Which leads me to the comment I made at the Mises site:
There are objective truths, in hard sciences, social sciences, philosophy, theology, etc. These lie at the center of a circle. We discover them, we lose them, if we are lucky we discover them again.
When we lose them, we pay a price, whether a collapsed bridge or a collapsed society.
Throughout our history, we have moved closer or farther from these truths; sometimes advancing toward objective truth, at other times regressing from objective truth.
But at the center lies objective truth.
The one thing I will add: there are some objective truths which I believe man does not have the ability to grasp perfectly. Like Plato’s forms, there are some that we cannot even picture perfectly in our mind. Yet, even for these, we can grasp what is closer and what is farther from the true form.
It isn’t a question of looking back longingly to some favorite point in history: The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, or the relationship of Church and king in the Middle Ages.
It isn’t a question of going back or going forward on a timeline. We are not moving along a line; we are moving around the center of a circle. It is a question of moving toward the center of the circle.
We look back on medieval science, and mockingly call the Church to task for defending what we moderns see as several crazy notions. One regularly noted example is that of Copernicus and Galileo, with the Church standing in the way of scientific advance. This is often played as the trump card by the scientistic crowd. Well, it turns out even this example isn’t as black and white as moderns would like to believe.
Religion has stood in the way of science, and since the Enlightenment dumped religion science has been freed to advance toward truth, unhindered by superstition. This is the worldview we are taught to believe.
But how will the future look back on our time? We are in the grip of a scientism that has taken on many disciplines – from medicine, to climate, geopolitical considerations, social sciences, economic sciences, gender understanding, etc.
These notions are sillier than most ideas held institutionally during the Middle Ages. Sillier, and infinitely more dangerous. If there is a future for human beings as human beings, we will look back on our time as…dare I say it…barbaric.
If in the future we aren’t human beings (insert your favorite reference to one of dozens of dystopian novels or movies)? Well, then none of this really matters. But the objective truth I hold to about the future tells me not to fear this.